Category: Privately and Family Owned Businesses

A FEW SIMPLE STEPS THAT DIRECTORS CAN TAKE TO MINIMIZE DIRECTOR LIABILITY

Directors of Public Companies should take these steps. Substantial Privately-Owned and Family-Owned and Managed Companies would do well to take them as well.

With a few simple steps, directors can reduce the burden of these lawsuits and protect themselves from the most common tactics utilized by stockholders’ attorneys.

Seven Tactics for Minimizing Director Litigation Headaches

Published by Craig Zieminski and Andrew Jackson Craig Zieminski, July 10, 2017

Law firms that specialize in suing directors will scrutinize nearly every major transaction, public offering, stock drop, restatement, and press release filed by public companies. For instance, according to Cornerstone Research, stockholders file lawsuits challenging the majority of public company transactions valued at more than $100 million, with an average of three lawsuits per transaction. An effective defense of these almost-inevitable lawsuits can begin long before they are filed. With a few simple steps, directors can reduce the burden of these lawsuits and protect themselves from the most common tactics utilized by stockholders’ attorneys.

1. Vet conflicts early and often. Perhaps the easiest way to avoid fiduciary duty liability is to avoid situations where you have conflicting interests in a transaction or other board decision. Due to various protections under Delaware law, directors are rarely held liable for poor or ill-informed decisions if the directors are not self-interested (unless they are grossly negligent), and articles of incorporation almost universally protect directors from monetary damages for such decisions. By contrast, Delaware fiduciary duty law imposes exacting standards for directors who participate in board decisions when they have a material self-interest in that decision. Thus, any major board initiative should begin with a full analysis of each director’s potential self-interests, and this analysis should be updated throughout the initiative. Of course, this analysis requires you to stay organized with your outside business interests (e.g., your employer’s customers, suppliers, and competitors) and personal financial situation (e.g., ownership interests). Recusing yourself can be the stitch in time that saves nine.

2. Treat all board communications formally. The documents that often cause the most trouble in litigation are informal e-mails between two directors. Even if e-mails contain nothing objectively negative regarding the board decision at issue, such e-mails can raise questions about the board’s deliberative process, especially if the issue raised in an e-mail was not discussed with the full board. A skilled plaintiff’s counsel can often interpret a casually written message in an unintended manner. In most instances, if a director raises any concern outside of a board meeting, the full board should resolve that concern and memorialize the process in a contemporaneous document (e.g., the minutes). If you have said anything in an e-mail that is inconsistent with your ultimate vote on an issue—even if you were just playing “devil’s advocate”—you should be prepared to square your communications with your vote. In other words, make sure your concerns are resolved through the deliberative process before making your decision.

3. Maximize efficiency in pressing circumstances. Perhaps underestimating how quickly and diligently directors and their advisors can work in exigent circumstances, plaintiffs’ attorneys often allege that board decisions were too rushed. For instance, in one of the more infamous Delaware fiduciary duty decisions, a financial advisor did not send any valuation materials to a board of directors until 9:42 p.m. on the night that the directors met to vote on a merger. The board met at 11 p.m. and approved the merger that night. Tight deadlines are often unavoidable, but directors can take steps to maximize the efficiency of the process. For instance, request early drafts of meeting materials, make your advisors work around-the-clock when necessary, and don’t wait until the board meeting to ask questions. At the end of the day, you need to be able to honestly state that you had enough time to fully consider any issues or concerns and come to a reasoned decision. Use your resources efficiently to get to that point.

4. Make your advisors an asset, not a liability. The quality and independence of a board’s advisors is a direct reflection on the quality and independence of the board’s process. This scrutiny begins when a board (or committee) selects its outside advisors. Stockholders may cry foul if directors simply accept management’s recommended advisor, especially if any member of management may have a self-interest in the relevant transaction.

To avoid these common allegations, interview multiple advisory firms, thoroughly inspect their potential conflicts, and negotiate for a fee structure that aligns the advisor’s incentivizes with the best interests of the stockholders. Stockholders also regularly allege that advisors are “deal cheerleaders” who bend their analysis to support the board’s wishes. To rebut these allegations, insist that your advisors objectively analyze the relevant issues, and ask them to obtain the board’s approval for any significant assumptions, methodology decisions, and other subjective portions of their analyses. To the extent possible, you should also resist your advisors’ efforts to load their work-product with disclaimers. Above all, carefully analyze your advisors’ work-product, ask questions, and do not rely on their opinions until you understand and approve of the efforts and reasoning underlying those opinions.

5. Ensure that the meeting minutes fully reflect the process. We cannot overstate the importance of minutes in litigation against directors. First, judges and juries typically place more weight on contemporaneous records of a board decision than after-the-fact testimony. Second, depositions often happen several months (if not years) after a challenged board decision, and minutes are an important tool for refreshing directors’ memories. Ask the board secretary to draft minutes promptly after a board meeting so that you can review them while the meeting is still fresh on your mind. When reviewing minutes, make sure that they accurately reflect a summary of the issues discussed, the specifics of any decisions reached, and a list of all attendees (plus mid-meeting arrivals and departures). Not every single statement made during a meeting can or should be part of the minutes, but it is important for the minutes to reflect every topic discussed at the meeting. Ask yourself: “If I’m questioned about this meeting at a deposition next year, will these minutes help me answer questions and show the court that we fulfilled our duties?”

6. Know the boundaries of the attorney-client privilege. The attorney-client privilege is not a guarantee that all correspondences with counsel are shielded from discovery. For instance, contrary to many directors’ (and attorneys’) beliefs, the attorney-client privilege does not protect every e-mail on which an attorney is copied. Rather, an e-mail is generally privileged only if the correspondence is sent in furtherance of requesting or providing legal advice. Parties in litigation are often required to redact the “legal advice” portion of e-mails and produce the remaining portions. Thus, an e-mail (or a portion of an e-mail) concerning purely business issues might not be shielded from production. Additionally, communications with certain persons that would ordinarily be privileged, including in-house and outside counsel, may not be privileged under certain circumstances. Further, even if a document is undisputedly privileged, litigants sometimes waive the attorney-client privilege for strategic reasons, such as when the board asserts that it made a challenged decision in reliance on advice from counsel. While it is vital to have open and honest communications with your counsel, it is also important to remember that those communications may be shown to an opposing party. If there is something you would not write down in a non-privileged e-mail, then consider calling your attorney instead of sending an e-mail.

7. Use a board-specific e-mail address. By exclusively using a non-personal e-mail address for board-related correspondences, you can significantly reduce the odds of personal e-mails (or e-mails concerning your other business endeavors) becoming subject to discovery. Too often, we see directors using their “day job” e-mail addresses for their directorial correspondences; this can lead to situations where your employer’s confidential information must be copied, reviewed by your outside counsel, or (worse yet) produced to the opposing party in litigation. The same holds true for personal e-mail addresses, which some directors use for their family’s bank statements and board-related e-mails. The best way to potentially avoid this situation is to proactively segregate board-related e-mails to a different e-mail account. Some companies create e-mail addresses for their directors. If yours does not, consider creating an e-mail account and conducting board-related business solely from that address.

Craig Zieminski and Andrew Jackson are litigation attorneys at Vinson & Elkins LLP. They specialize in representing companies and their directors in lawsuits alleging breaches of fiduciary duties, partnership agreement duties, merger agreements, and federal securities laws.

Businesses And Boards-Curing A “Defective Corporate Act” Under Delaware Law

The Exposure
Under the Delaware General Corporation Law (the “DGCL”) otherwise permissible corporate acts that do not satisfy the consent and other procedural requirements of the DGCL, the corporation’s organizational documents or any other agreement to which the corporation is a party, are deemed to be “defective corporate acts” and are generally held to be void and of no legal force and effect.[i]

In sum, founders and their Boards should, at minimum, undertake the below listed procedural steps* in order to ensure that otherwise defective corporate acts are cured and ratified in the manner prescribed by the DGCL.

WRITTEN BY:

Fox Rothschild LLP

The Problem
As every founder knows, starting and scaling a company is an extremely difficult and multi-faceted undertaking. In addition to the primary goals of developing a viable product, finding (and in some cases building from scratch) a robust market, and raising the capital necessary to sustain and scale their business and operations, founders and their core teams also grapple with the day-to-day management and operations of a growing enterprise, whether that be personnel issues, forecasting cash needs and burn rates or tackling the legal and regulatory hurdles that often go hand-in-hand with the creation of disruptive technologies. Unfortunately, given the size and complexity of the average founder’s workload, it is no surprise that emerging companies of all sizes occasionally neglect to heed the advice of their attorneys and ensure that any and all corporate actions taken by the company and its officers are properly authorized and, if necessary, approved by the company’s Board and stockholders.

The Exposure
Under the Delaware General Corporation Law (the “DGCL”) otherwise permissible corporate acts that do not satisfy the consent and other procedural requirements of the DGCL, the corporation’s organizational documents or any other agreement to which the corporation is a party, are deemed to be “defective corporate acts” and are generally held to be void and of no legal force and effect.[i] The pre-2014 historical body of Delaware case law held such corporate acts, taken without “scrupulous adherence to the statutory formalities” of the DGCL, to be acts undertaken “without the authority of law” and therefore necessarily void.[ii] Prior to the enactment of Sections 204 and 205 of the DGCL, the relevant line of Delaware case law held that corporate acts, transactions and equity issuances that were void or voidable as a result of the corporation’s failure to comply with the procedural requirements of the DGCL and the corporation’s governing documents could not be retroactively ratified or validated by either (i) unilateral acts of the Corporation intended to cure the procedural misstep or (i) on equitable grounds in the context of litigation or a formal petition for relief to the Court of Chancery.[iii] In short, there was no legally recognized cure for such defective actions and the company was left forever exposed to future claims by disgruntled shareholders, which could ultimately jeopardize future financings, exits and ultimately the very existence of the company.

The Statutory Cure
Luckily, for those founders who make the potentially serious misstep of failing to obtain the required consents and approvals before taking a particular action (e.g. issuing options to employees or executing a convertible note or SAFE without the prior consent of the Board), in 2014 Delaware enacted Sections 204 and 205 of the DGCL, which served to clarify the state of the law in Delaware and fill a perceived gap in the DGCL by providing new mechanisms for a corporation to unilaterally ratify defective corporate acts or otherwise seek relief from the Court of Chancery.[iv]

While both Section 204 and 205 were intended to remedy the same underlying issue and provide a clear process for ratifying or validating a defective corporate act, the mechanics set forth in the respective sections take disparate routes to arrive at the intended result:

Section 205 provides a pathway for ratification that runs through the courts, allowing a corporation, on an ex parte basis, to request that the court determine the validity of any corporate act.
Section 204, on the other hand, is considered a “self-help statute” in the sense that the procedural mechanic provided for in the statute allows a company to ratify the previously defective act unilaterally, without the time and expense involved with petitioning the court for validation of the corporate act in question.
In the case of early stage companies, the expenditure of the heavy costs and valuable time associated with seeking validation in the Court of Chancery render Section 205 a less than ideal tool for curing defective acts. This post focuses on Section 204, which provides a far less onerous mechanic for ratifying defective corporate acts, allowing a corporation to cure past errors “without disproportionately disruptive consequences.”[v]

Section 204 in Practice
Section 204 provides a company with a procedure to remedy otherwise be void or voidable corporate acts, providing that “no defective corporate act or putative stock shall be void or voidable solely as a result of a failure of authorization if ratified as provided in [Section 204].”[vi] Pursuant to Section 204, a corporation’s Board may retroactively ratify defective corporate acts by adopting written resolutions setting forth:

the specific defective corporate act(s) to be ratified;
the date on which such act(s) occurred;
the underlying facts that render the act(s) in question defective (e.g., failure to obtain the authorization of the Board or inadequate number of authorized shares); and
that the Board has approved the ratification of the defective corporate act(s).
Additionally, if a vote of one or more classes of stockholders was initially required to authorize the defective act at the time such act was taken (e.g., the approval of a majority of the Series A preferred stockholders in the case of an act that falls within the purview of the Series A protective provisions), then ratifying resolutions of the relevant class of stockholders is also required in order to cure the prior defect in the corporate act.

In sum, founders and their Boards should, at minimum, undertake the below listed procedural steps* in order to ensure that otherwise defective corporate acts are cured and ratified in the manner prescribed by the DGCL.

A resolution by the Board that states (i) the defective corporate act to be ratified, (ii) the date of the defective act, (iii) if shares or other equity is involved, the number, class and date of the equity issuance, (iv) the reason for the defect, and (v) the approval and ratification by the Board of the defective corporate act.
Approval of the stockholders or a particular class of stockholders (in form of a written consent) if such an approval was required at the time of the defective corporate act.
Proper notice of the ratification sent to all stockholders (including stock that may have been invalidly issued). The notice must include a copy of the ratifying resolution/consent and an explanation that any claim that the ratification in question is not effective must be brought before the Court of Chancery no later than 120 days from the effective date of the ratification.
In certain circumstances, the filing of a “Certificate of Validation” with the Delaware Department of State to cure the defective corporate act being ratified (e.g., if shares were issued without filing the necessary Certificate of Amendment to increase the authorized shares of a corporation).
*This list should not be considered all-inclusive. Each situation is unique and further actions may be required depending on the underlying facts and the cause of the defect in question.

Takeaways
The potential adverse impact of an uncured defective corporate act cannot be understated. For an early stage company seeking to raise capital from venture investors or other outside parties (or eventually exit through an acquisition), the risks associated with such defective acts are particularly acute. As a practical example, a corporation’s failure to observe the proper procedures in the election of a director can result in the invalidation of such election. In the event of such a defective election, actions taken by, or with the approval of, the improperly elected Board may be void or voidable. This or other defective corporate acts may result in the corporation being in breach of representations and warranties in any number of contracts, including stock purchase agreements executed as part of a financing round or M&A transaction.

Generally speaking, relatively extensive due diligence is typically the first step in all venture financings and other major corporate transactions. As part of this process, counsel for the investor or acquiror will undoubtedly review all material actions of the company along with the corresponding Board and stockholder consents as a means of “tying out” the company’s cap table. Any defective corporate act that was not later ratified by the company in accordance with Section 204 or 205 will at best need to be ratified or validated in advance of the closing of the transaction, and at worst may result in either (i) a reduction in the company’s valuation due to the perceived risk that past actions are ultimately void or unenforceable, or (ii) in extreme situations, the abandonment or termination of the transaction.

In an ideal world, companies of all sizes would always observe the proper procedures in authorizing corporate acts and ensuring that all other necessary steps had been taken to ensure the validity of such actions. Unfortunately, in the fast-paced and often frenzied world of a startup, certain “housekeeping” items occasionally fall by the wayside. Upon the discovery of a defective corporate act by a company or its counsel, it is vital that the proper ratification procedures be undertaken in order to ensure that any and all past actions that could potentially be rendered defective are rectified and ratified in accordance with Section 204 (or in some cases Section 205) of the DGCL.

[i] A “defective corporate act” includes any corporate act or transaction that was within the power granted to a corporation by the DGCL but was thereafter determined to have been void or voidable for failure to comply with the applicable provisions of the DGCL, the corporation’s governing documents, or any plan or agreement to which the corporation is a party. See 8 Del. C. § 204(h)(1); See also, e.g., Blades v. Wisehart, C.A. No. 5317-VCS, at 8 (Del. Ch. Nov. 17, 2010) (holding that “scrupulous adherence to statutory formalities when a board takes actions changing a corporation’s capital structure”); STAAR Surgical Co. v. Waggoner, 588 A.2d 1130, 1136 (Del. 1991) (“Stock issued without authority of law is void and a nullity.”).

[ii] See, e.g., Blades v. Wisehart, C.A. No. 5317-VCS, at 8 (Del. Ch. Nov. 17, 2010) (holding that “scrupulous adherence to statutory formalities when a board takes actions changing a corporation’s capital structure”); STAAR Surgical Co. v. Waggoner, 588 A.2d 1130, 1136 (Del. 1991) (“Stock issued without authority of law is void and a nullity.”).

[iii] Id.

[iv] See H.B. 127, 147th Gen. Assemb., Reg. Sess. (Del. 2013): “Section 204 is intended to overturn the holdings in case law . . . that corporate acts or transactions and stock found to be “void” due to a failure to comply with the applicable provisions of the General Corporation Law or the corporation’s organizational documents may not be ratified or otherwise validated on equitable grounds.”

[v] In re Numoda Corp. S’holders Litig., Consol. C.A. No. 9163-VCN, 2015 WL 402265, at 8 (Del. Ch. Jan. 30, 2015).

[vi] 8 Del. C. § 204(a).

[View source.]

Corporate Governance and Change

Corporate Governance and Change

A Quick Review Of Basics

By: Saul Winsten,General Counsel
The Winsten Group.Trusted Counsel LLC.
A national Legal, Business, and Corporate Affairs firm
thewinstengroup.com

What is “Governance”?

Governance has been defined in different ways. For our purposes, corporate governance may be understood to mean the system, processes and relationships by which a corporation is controlled and directed. Boards of Directors are responsible ultimately for governance, the control and direction of the corporation they serve.
For brevity our discussion will focus on this topic as applied to closely-held and family-owned business corporations.

What has changed?

With ever increasing market competition, and pace and magnitude of technological change, the challenges encountered by closely-held and family-owned businesses and their Boards have grown. The traditional or legacy structures for governance, or legacy leadership may no longer be appropriate. New governance structure, processes, and leaders may be called for.

Questions concerning governance often include questions concerning the role and responsibilities of the Board, and how governance may be evolving in response to change. Below is a quick review of basic principles, and of some increasingly common business adaptations to change.

Basic Principles:

The Role and Responsibilities of Boards

Board responsibilities are separate from those of management. Boards are not to manage the business; executive management has that responsibility. The Board’s role and its responsibilities include:

1.To advise and consult with management on corporate strategy, operational performance & effectiveness, key performance metrics, executive performance and compensation, risk management, and growth and change matters
2.To provide oversight of and approve corporate strategy and strategic plans, major
acquisitions and divestitures, management and business performance, strategic matters,
company resource planning and needs, legal compliance, protection of assets, budget and
significant financing, mergers, and corporate reorganizations
3.To plan for executive and Board succession, select new executives, and
recommend new Board members

Board Requirements

Boards and Board members must act solely in and for the interest of the corporation. Board members should be qualified to carry out Board responsibilities, be informed and knowledgeable of matters that may come before the Board, exercise prudent business judgement, and act free from conflicts of interest that compromise such action and judgement.

Fiduciary Duties

Boards of Directors and individual Board Members have “Fiduciary Duties”, to act prudently, in and for the interest of the business and shareholders, with care, honesty, prudence, and in good faith.

The primary fiduciary duties have been referred to as “Duty of Care”, and “Duty of Loyalty”. Some courts and securities regulation also refer to a “Duty of Candor” or “Duty of Disclosure”. Various courts have identified and discussed specific aspects of these duties.

The “Duty of Care” requires Board members act with knowledge of the pertinent facts and circumstances, with care, after due consideration of all relevant information.

The “Duty of Loyalty” requires Board members act in the best interests of the corporation and shareholders, and to ensure that actions are taken in good faith.

“Good Faith” has been defined by Black’s Law Dictionary as requiring Board members act with “(1) honesty in belief or purpose, (2) faithfulness to one’s duty or obligation, (3) observance of reasonable commercial standards of fair dealing in a given trade or business, (4) absence of intent to defraud or to seek unconscionable advantage”.

Liability for Breach of Fiduciary Duties

Boards and individual Directors have been found liable for breach of their fiduciary duties.

Defense to Claim of Breach of Fiduciary Duties

A defense to an action against a Board for Board action is sometimes called “the business judgement rule”. Under that rule, a court generally will not “second guess” a Board decision if the Board: (i) followed a reasonable and informed process; (ii) took into account all relevant facts and circumstances; and (iii) made its decision” in good faith”.

Adaptations to Change
These include but are not limited to:

Enhanced Board “on-boarding” and education

To properly prepare new Board members for joining the Board and carrying out Board responsibilities, businesses and organizations are paying increasing attention to proper orientation, introduction and education of Board members. The need for such action increases with the size of the organization, complexity of the organization and its activities, demands of shareholders and stakeholders, and the nature and complexity of risks to which the organization is subject.

Use of Board Committees:

As the quantity and complexity of matters that Boards are to act upon have increased, the use of committees and the need for enhanced committee and Board expertise has increased.

Some matters, particularly complex matters requiring special expertise, are increasingly delegated to committees of the Board, which in turn make recommendations for Board deliberation and action. Committees such as Compensation, Audit, Governance, and Nominating, among others, are common.
Many Boards have an Executive Committee of corporate officers, who are tasked with developing recommendations on policy and other matters for Board action.

Matters requiring special expertise may be delegated to a committee which includes members with that special expertise.

An example of a committee tasked with matters requiring special expertise is the Audit Committee. This committee is charged with developing recommendations concerning matters concerning accounting policies, financial reporting, and other audit related matters. It is responsible for oversight of the independent auditor, internal financial control policies, financial risk management policies, and the performance of the internal audit function.

Another example is the Nominating and/or Governance Committee where identification of desired qualified candidates for Board service, selection of nominees for Board positions, governance standards and processes, Board and CEO evaluation may be discussed and recommendations made.

Other committees requiring specialized knowledge may be used by a business’ Board. These include Cybersecurity, Technology, Legal, Finance, Strategic Planning, M&A, HR, Ethics/Corporate Responsibility, and Environmental Committees, for example.

Addition of Independent and Specially Qualified Directors:

Another response increasingly used by Boards of closely held businesses, including family-owned or managed businesses, is the addition “Independent Directors” to their Boards. These Independent Directors assist the Board in carrying out its responsibilities by bringing independent thought, needed specialized expertise, and special perspective to those Boards. Examples of the knowledge and expertise sought and retained for Independent Directors include proven industry and outside business leadership, legal, finance, technology, cybersecurity, and other specialized expertise.
Some courts, notably Delaware, have addressed the issue of what makes a Board member “independent”.

Use of Board Counsel

Some larger businesses and organizations have retained special Board Counsel to provide independent advice and guidance on Board and governance matters of special concern. Board Counsel have been found especially useful where perspective, guidance, and advice independent of Board or executive leadership relationships, is desired.

Conclusion

Governance changes are driven by a number of factors. Growth, market competition, disruptive technology, regulatory requirements, and succession generated dynamics for example, may compel a company to change the way it does business, manages risk, and the way it is governed.
Businesses and organizations that will succeed are those prepared for change.

Heads Up: Board of Directors, Resignation from the Board, Duty of Loyalty.

When a venture capital fund invests in an emerging growth company, it typically seeks to protect its investment by obtaining the right to designate a member of the Board of Directors. While many of these individual designees are experts in their field and have vast networks of valuable relationships at their disposal, a newly designated director may be unfamiliar with the duties imposed on him should he want to resign. Paul Hastings Client Alert

March 2017 Follow @Paul_Hastings

Resigning From a Board of Directors:Considerations for VC Fund Designees
By Samuel A. Waxman, Jordan L. Goldman & Brooke Schachner

When a venture capital fund invests in an emerging growth company, it typically seeks to protect its investment by obtaining the right to designate a member of the Board of Directors. While many of these individual designees are experts in their field and have vast networks of valuable relationships at their disposal, a newly designated director may be unfamiliar with the duties imposed on him should he want to resign.

Delaware law generally gives the Board of Directors broad authority to manage the business affairs of a corporation. Although this level of discretion is generally extended to the ability to resign, there are various factors that should be considered when weighing the value of keeping a seat against the potential turmoil and liability associated with resignation. Designated directors often reflexively consider resignation when the company has run out of money or is heading into the so-called “zone of insolvency” out of fear of personal liability. Resigning at this point, however, may actually give rise to the very liability the director was seeking to avoid. As a result, it is important for a director to know when he can resign versus when he should resign.

I. The Benefits of Sitting on a Board: A Seat at the Table
The best way for a venture capital fund to remain informed and maintain influence on a company’s decision-making is to hold a seat on the Board. Directors have the power to vote on matters mandated by Delaware law, the certificate of incorporation, or the investment documents that affect material aspects of the business and its stakeholders. For example, Board approval may be necessary for: amendments to the certificate of incorporation and bylaws; equity grants or transfers (whether stock, options, or warrants); distributions to stockholders; borrowing or lending money; adopting an annual budget; hiring or terminating members of senior management (or amending their terms of employment); adopting employee benefit plans; a sale of material assets of the company; adissolution of the company; and/or entering into agreements and transactions of material importance to the company (intellectual property licenses, mergers, or IPOs).

This remains true even if the investment has gone sour. Directors will continue to have say over bridge financings, the direction of DIP loan packages, and other key decisions that need to be made by a company in distress.

II. Should I Stay or Should I Go?
Under Delaware law, a director generally may resign at any time, unless the certificate of incorporation or bylaws require otherwise. Notably, however, a director may not resign when doing so would constitute a breach of the duty of loyalty.

A. Duty of Loyalty
Directors have a duty to act in the best interests of the shareholders—personal benefit is secondary, even if management is making questionable choices. For example, simply resigning upon discovery of flagrant crimes committed by corporate insiders, without attempting to rectify the issue, may constitute a breach of the duty of loyalty. In In re Puda Coal Shareholders’ Litigation, a CEO was accused of theft through unauthorized transfers which went unnoticed for 18 months. A third party brought the suspected criminality to the attention of the independent directors, but the directors were “stonewalled” by management when they attempted to bring suit. So, the independent directors resigned from the Board. The Delaware court was critical of the directors’ decision to resign rather than cause the company to join a related derivative suit, stating that simply resigning at that point (while the company was in hot water) might be a breach of the duty of loyalty.

Similarly, in Rich v. Chong, another Delaware case, the court determined that ignoring numerous red flags and resigning from the Board may have constituted an abdication of the directors’ duties. In this case, the company completed its public offering in 2009. In 2010, it revealed discrepancies in its financial statements, and in 2011, auditors discovered a $130 million cash transfer to third parties in China. A 2010 stockholder suit urged the company’s audit committee to investigate, but the investigation was abandoned in 2012 due to management’s failure to pay the fees incurred by the audit company’s advisors. The company also failed to hold an annual stockholder meeting for several years despite a 2012 court order to do so. The independent directors subsequently resigned. Chiding the directors, the court stated that “the conscious failure to act, in the face of a known duty, is a breach of the duty of loyalty.”

Directors of companies with foreign operations, moreover, are subject to a heightened fiduciary duty. Delaware Supreme Court Chief Justice Strine’s view on local companies with foreign operations is that a director’s required engagement is even more strenuous (e.g., traveling to that foreign country, having language skills, and knowing the culture).

B. Reasons for Resignation
A director may want to resign from his position on the Board for several reasons. If the company breaks the law or materially breaches its bylaws or shareholder agreements, without immediate rectification, a director may consider resignation. In addition, a director may deem it necessary to resign over disagreements among the Board members. Deadlocks and discord can severely impede progress—a particular concern for growth companies. While discussion and debate is healthy for an effective Board, intractable differences of opinion about the company’s future can stall innovation and stifle success. Similarly, a fundamental opposition to some of the company’s major practices could be reason enough to step away.

Designees are often selected for board seats because of their expertise in a particular field and their vast network of connections. However, a conflict of interest may arise as a result. If conflicts of interest persist and become irreconcilable, a director’s exit might be best for all parties involved. Still, a director’s fiduciary duties to the corporation and its shareholders must be at the forefront of one’s concerns, and if an exit may constitute a breach of the duty of loyalty, directors must think twice
2
about resignation. In addition, while the director himself may not have a personal conflict, a designated director might wish to resign if the fund they represent is going to engage in certain debt financing transactions with the company.

Additionally, a director may want to resign if he is unable to obtain adequate protection against personal liability. A director should ensure that the company has a sufficient director and officer (“D&O”) insurance policy and an indemnification agreement in place that protects individual directors. It is important to make sure D&O policies have a proper tail so that directors are still covered even after they leave the Board. A director is often best served staying on the Board as long as possible to make sure that the D&O insurance is kept in place at the expected levels and/or to best negotiate a tail on his exit. Without appropriate D&O insurance, directors may face liability for certain claims against the corporation. Notably, a recently enacted California law includes directors in the group of individuals that may be held personally liable for unpaid final wages. While a director may be covered by insurance or indemnification in this instance, it is important to be aware of state laws that may subject corporate agents to additional liability.
Finally, evidence that management is not acting in the best interests of the shareholders may be cause for a director’s resignation. But again, a director has to be sure that his exit does not unduly harm the company or breach a fiduciary duty owed to the shareholders.

III. Practice Tips for the Director Pondering Resignation
When considering resignation, a director must act in the best interests of the company. Current or potential directors should research whether there are any unusual restrictions on resignation in the certificate of incorporation or bylaws or unusual internal procedures and policies.

Moreover, a director should take specific steps upon the discovery of illegality or malfeasance, namely:
1. A director’s first duty is to take reasonable steps to stop any ongoing legal or ethical violations.
2. If met with stonewalling, the director should seek independent legal counsel.
3. A director who decides to resign may want to submit a written statement to the chairman for circulation to the Board and possibly to the shareholders.
Following these general steps will ensure that a director can leave a Board while guarding against potential liability. The decision to resign from a Board must not be made flippantly. Facts and circumstances will rule the day; regardless, a director must always mind his fiduciary duties to the company and its shareholders.


Improving Family Owned Business Boards And Governance With Addition of Specially Qualified Independent Directors

This article originally appeared in The Family Business Boardroom quarterly newsletter.

Seven Steps to Recruiting Value Add Independent Directors
director_recruiting_final
© The Family Business Consulting Group
By Anne Hargrave

The Addition Of Specially Qualified Independent Directors To Family Owned Business Boards and Improved Governance Processes Is Increasingly Common, and Of Interest To Successful Family Owned Businesses.

Incorporating independent directors into a family firm’s board is considered one of the standards for family business success. The prospect of finding independent directors who can both challenge business leaders and represent ownership interests can be daunting. Following these seven steps will help identify directors who will add value to the family business enterprise.

1. Establish a Nominating Committee
Identify three to four people to manage the director search process and recommend candidates to the board, which is responsible for electing a new director. The nominating (or governance) committee can facilitate an inclusive process, incorporating stakeholder perspectives to identify candidates who will support the needs of the business and the shareholders.

2. Collect Stakeholder Opinions
Soliciting stakeholder opinions on the characteristics of a new director gives participants an opportunity to express their point of view and will make it easier to accept the ultimate conclusion of the board. It is helpful to:

Review strategic challenges and board member expertise – Consider how your industry is evolving and the degree to which the business is prepared. What parts of the strategic plan are new territories for management? What skills might a new director have to support management in executing the plan?
Assess the board’s culture and function – Clarify what you would like to maintain and what you would like to change. Consider the impact of near term retirements on the board’s culture and whether you are seeking a director who might become the chair in the future. What director characteristics are important to enhance the board’s functioning?
Consider family and shareholder dynamics – Independent directors who build relationships with shareholders, spouses and future shareholders can be valuable in creating alignment between the board and shareholders. What characteristics will be important for a new director to relate well with shareholders?
Explore potential added value for management – Ask management to identify specific skills in a new director that will be helpful to them. Taking into consideration the board’s view of management’s opportunities for growth, what attributes might a new director have to mentor to management?
3. Create a Board Prospectus
As a tool for recruiting new directors, the prospectus outlines important factors about the business and the expertise desired, including:

A summary of the business’ history, products, markets served, strategic focus and size
Rationale for seeking a new director
Board structure, including number of independents, committees, meeting frequency and board fees
Board responsibilities
Desired director experience, attributes and education
4. Solicit and Review Candidate Pool
The nominating committee manages a process of circulating the prospectus to colleagues, advisors and personal contacts requesting candidate referrals. They collect and review candidate resumes to establish a pool of candidates whose background aligns with the prospectus, at least on paper. Using a firm experienced in searching for family business directors can be helpful in expanding the candidate pool.

5. Conduct Interviews
The nominating committee then narrows the candidate field incrementally until a qualified director has been identified. It is helpful to break the interviewing process into the stages noted below to compare candidates and share thinking about the right fit for the board.

a) Provide candidates with the prospectus and confirm their interest.
b) Interview each candidate via telephone.
c) Review the interview outcomes and identify a small group of candidates for in-person interviews.
d) Invite candidates to meet in person with nominating committee members.
e) Review the in-person interview outcomes, determining whether you have the right candidates to choose amongst. If so, move forward.
f) Consider the value of additional interviews or a chemistry fit social gathering with key stakeholders for the final candidates.

6. Decide
When you have identified a board candidate whom you believe has the right skills, values and cultural fit, extend an invitation. At that time determine whether or not the candidate is interested in accepting, contingent upon reference checks.

7. Conduct Reference Checks
Conduct reference checks and any additional vetting to confirm the candidate’s value add to other boards, their level of expertise, and, if they have had family business experience, the manner in which they were helpful to the family and business system.

Boards Of Directors in 2017: 5 Trends To Be Aware Of.

Previously posted in Private Company Director Magazine

The Responsibilities Of Boards Continue To Increase, Demanding Increased Director Awareness and Understanding Of Developments Likely To Impact That Business.

2017 Board of Directors Predictions: 5 Trends to Watch
By Brian Stafford

“For board members and directors tasked with guiding their companies through these changes and the complexities that could arise in the aftermath of 2016, change is needed in the boardroom as well. From expanding skillsets to greater accountability for brand reputation and issues management, here are five of the top trends that will make the biggest impact on boards in 2017”.

2016 was a year marked by significant changes—stunning political upheavals via Brexit and our own controversial new President-elect; a growing number of big-ticket, multi billion dollar M&A deals amid massive enterprise court battles, particularly in the technology sector; evolving regulations and proposed governance standards; as well as persistent and increasingly destructive cyber security attacks, threatening everything from the outcome of the U.S. election to the sale of Yahoo to Verizon for $4.8 billion.

For board members and directors tasked with guiding their companies through these changes and the complexities that could arise in the aftermath of 2016, change is needed in the boardroom as well. From expanding skillsets to greater accountability for brand reputation and issues management, here are five of the top trends that will make the biggest impact on boards in 2017.

Prediction 1: Individual Accountability Becomes a Focus

Board members will be measured by more than just collective financial performance, but also for their personal effectiveness, diligence, ethical quotient (EQ) and contribution to the corporate brand. Thus, it will be imperative for board members to evaluate the security of their confidential digital communications (both personal and professional), and adopt modern best practices designed to protect the integrity of sensitive information, and ultimately, the brand’s reputation.

Prediction 2: Diverse Board Members Wanted (& Needed)

Boards have often been criticized for lacking the diversity and modern skillsets needed to compete in today’s fast-paced and technology-driven business world. However, in order to both solve complex challenges facing businesses today, as well as capitalize on market opportunity globally, more diverse views, experiences and skill-sets in the boardroom are needed.

This evolution will revolve around three key areas:

1. More women as directors
2. Board members with varied skill sets (such as technology and security)
3. Unwavering commitment to technological adoption in the boardroom, and across the enterprise.

Prediction 3: Greater Accountability Calls for Improved Collaboration

In 2017, board members must also have more transparency, authority and collaboration to advise and make key decisions in tandem with company decision makers.

As the level of accountability grows, there will need to be a redistributed line between the board and executive management. This new redistribution will also guide how the board interacts with activist investors, shareholders and each other.

Prediction 4: Cyber Security Becomes a Board Problem

In 2017, boards will need to strongly consider adding individuals with CIO/CISO experience. Cyber security is perhaps the single biggest risk to enterprises today, with breaches impacting corporations around the world daily, and many are not ready for battle.

To help better prepare, boards will need to make it a priority to enhance public-private partnerships and utilize third party providers to leverage the cumulative cyber-knowledge of its whole network. This will help solve fundamental problems like a lax security culture, knowing where data is located and how regulations will impact the company.

Prediction 5: Political Changes Enter the Boardroom

President-elect Donald Trump promises to bring about a variety of changes to foreign policy, domestic practices and corporate governance. With Trump in office, board members will need to keep an even closer eye on how corporate governance is set to change, including new requirements for board oversight as well as the evolving role of the corporate secretary. In fact, there’s already talk of potential changes to key legislations such as dismantling Dodd-Frank and swift immigration and labor changes.

2017 will undoubtedly be a transformative year for many enterprises and the boards that govern them. While time will tell how each of these trends will impact boards, I am willing to bet that those that continue to evolve and adhere to industry best practices will outperform those that stick with the status quo.
Brian Stafford is Chief Executive Officer of Diligent Corporation. Brian is responsible for all day-to-day operations, with a focus on accelerating global growth and incorporating scale into the business in order to seamlessly manage the growth. Brian previously served as a Partner at McKinsey & Company, where he founded and led their Software-as-a-Service Practice. Prior to his tenure at McKinsey, Brian was the Founder, President and CEO of CarOrder, a division of Trilogy Software based in Austin, Texas. Brian is also an active seed stage investor and start up advisor. His other passion lies in the arts, supporting the NYC community in his role as a BAM board member.

How Some Family Offices Are Changing Their Investment Strategies

Previously posted on LinkedIn.

Food For Thought On Some Family Offices’Changing Strategies for Investment, and For Direct Investment In Particular.

Balancing what can, therefore, be a rather imprecise notion of ESG performance or “impact” and the asset’s financial performance within the decision-making and constitutional framework of a family office may not be without its complications and some will take to this approach more readily than others.

Family Office Insights
Sustainable and Impact Investing: An Increasing Focus for Family Offices
As highlighted in our previous “Family Office Insights” piece, the last few years have witnessed a growing number of family o ces undertaking direct investments and developing their human and technical resources as enablers for such investments. While not without its challenges, such a strategy can deliver economic benefits by way of reduced fund management fees while giving investors a greater level of engagement and in uence within the underlying businesses.
At the same time, we are seeing mounting evidence to suggest that more and more family o ces are turning their focus and capital allocations toward businesses and assets that satisfy certain environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) criteria and/ or that seek to achieve positive social or environmental “returns” or “impact” alongside nancial performance.
This is, of course, not a trend that is exclusive to family offices and should not come as a surprise. We live in a world of increasing interest in the environmental and social consequences of business and trade, where the behavior of corporations is scrutinized more and more rigorously, and so the impetus for making investments in and supporting organizations that have a positive impact on society will surely continue to strengthen. As social awareness and pressure increases, it seems inevitable that the whole gamut of investors, across the private and public sectors, will look to increase their exposure to, or use of, products or assets that satisfy certain ESG, “green” or “impact” criteria in one way or another.
Nor is this a recent phenomenon; the idea of investing to align with ethical standards or to incentivize or disincentivize certain types of environmental or social behavior is long established.
What has perhaps been a catalyst for the more recent trend, however, is a realization by many investors that companies (and the instruments deriving from them) operating ESG-sensitive business practices are capable of matching, if not outperforming, their peers and comparable investments from a nancial perspective.
Converging Trends
There could be said, to be some degree, of correlation between the growing trend of direct investments by family o ces and the increase in capital being allocated by family offices to businesses or investments that operate with ESG considerations at their core, especially those that can truly be said to be “impact investments.”
The Millennial generation is undoubtedly more influenced by and
in tune with ESG concerns than their forebears, and with a large number of 30-40-year olds now starting to assume greater decision- making responsibility within their own family organizations,
greater proportions of the capital at their disposal is now being aimed in this direction. The emergence of a new cohort of global entrepreneurs with strong social and ecological consciences and loud social media-enabled voices no doubt adds further support to the momentum of a generation who want to put their money to work in a socially productive and bene cial way, while still generating acceptable investment returns.
More particularly, while liquid assets in this space such as ESG- oriented equity funds become increasingly prevalent and investable and will continue to attract a meaningful share of available capital, alternative assets such as direct investments can o er a much more “hands-on” approach to ESG investing, by removing intermediaries and often giving investors a role in the operation or governance of a business, enabling them to make an “impact.” Reputational benefits by association may also accrue to families that are seen to be actively involved with ESG businesses and investments, which can add to the appeal for some family organizations. For the right asset and assuming nancial performance targets are achievable, there can then be a compelling investment rationale at the con uence of these developing trends.
What Are the Challenges?
In the case of direct investments, identifying and gaining access to the right investment opportunities and then executing them will present the sort of challenges with which family offices are increasingly familiar.
As well as the typical hurdles of sourcing deal flow and identifying investment opportunities, there is the more fundamental question
of how to measure performance as far as ESG or “impact” is concerned. This is essentially an emerging asset class that is still in its infancy; there is no such thing as standardized criteria with which to measure “impact” against, and while corporate governance (the “G” of ESG) has received considerable attention and is some way toward more global or regional standardization, the other limbs of this commonly used acronym remain di cult to quantify or verify. In the US and in other jurisdictions, including the UK, the development of the “bene t corporation” model, aimed at addressing ESG concerns and social investing more generally, does, however, show signs of providing one form of veritable framework in which to join a for-profit enterprise with a social investment goal.
While the general trend seems, therefore, to be one of ever-increasing development, transparency and disclosure (other examples of which include the “comply or explain” regimes for public companies, requirements for regulated funds and the proliferation of ESG-oriented indices in the public equity and debt markets), which will help with the evolution of best practice and benchmarks for many investors, an assessment of performance from an ESG or “impact” perspective will often be to a large extent subjective.
Balancing what can, therefore, be a rather imprecise notion of ESG performance or “impact” and the asset’s financial performance within the decision-making and constitutional framework of a family office may not be without its complications and some will take to this approach more readily than others.
How Advisers Can Help
There will be a range of areas in which external advisers can help, depending on the asset in question and what the investment aims and objectives are.
A thorough understanding of the business model and particularly the supply and distribution chains will be critical and, accordingly, a more bespoke and possibly more intrusive approach to due diligence might be necessary. Likewise, a familiarity with the markets the business operates in and the local public policy landscape may be more valuable than it might otherwise be. Negotiating and obtaining appropriate governance and information rights, giving an ability to direct or monitor specific aspects of its investment, can also become a crucial aspect of the deal terms and may go beyond what is typically sought by a minority investor. Where direct investments are made in real estate, analyzing and agreeing to the terms and conditions applicable to tenants and potential service providers can also be a means of shaping the performance and credentials of the asset. In the case of funds and listed entities, where the opportunity for direct “impact” will be more limited, investors may wish to consider how they can influence performance or behavior by way of shareholder activism or softer, more diplomatic means such as raising concerns with directors and fund managers directly. With such a variety of approaches and considerations, there will, therefore, be numerous ways in which advisors should be able to add value to the process throughout the life cycle of the investment.

Contacts
Robert J. Shakespeare
Of Counsel, Singapore
T +65 6922 8674
E robert.shakespeare@squirepb.com
Daniel G. Berick
Partner, Cleveland
T +1 216 479 8374
E daniel.berick@squirepb.com
The contents of this update are not intended to serve as legal advice related to individual situations or as legal opinions concerning such situations nor should they be considered a substitute for taking legal advice.